Monthly Archives: May 2012

There is no fruit in a BLT

First, I want to say that tomatoes are a fruit. Here is a scientific definition of fruit:

Fruit noun, plural: fruits

(1) (botany) The seed-bearing structure in angiosperms formed from the ovary after flowering.


See? Tomato is a fruit.

Having said that, in common English parlance we do not call a tomato a fruit. We put the tomatoes in with the vegetables. Is this because we are unknowledgeable? No. It is because we are wise. Anyone who reads Fortune Cookies knows this:

Knowledge is knowing that a Tomato is a Fruit. Wisdom is not putting a Tomato in the Fruit Salad.

There are two things that bother me about this. First, we don’t do this with cucumbers. Cucumbers are also a fruit. Or butternut squash. That’s also a fruit. Or peppers. Fruit. We only do this “I’m a smart skeptic look how smart I am” thing with tomatoes. Why? Perhaps because of all the “vegetables” that are “fruit,” tomatoes are the most fruit-esque, more near the vegetable-fruit line, more positioned, as it were, to challenge the common knowledge. Or, maybe the “knowledgeable” who like to make fun of the villagers by pointing out that this vegetable is a fruit don’t know that a lufa sponge is also a fruit. Personally, I think it is because tomatoes are red, and so are a LOT of fruits. (Most of which are inedible, it seems, but that’s another story.)

So, the first thing that bothers me is that it isn’t taken far enough. The second thing that bothers me is that it is taken too far. Tomatoes are not fruit, they are vegetables, as are summer and winter squash, carrots, lettuce, and onions. Why? Because that is what we call them in English. Oh, the scientists? They have a different set of terms for these things. In fact, scientists have a huge big pile of terms related to plants…Achene, Laevigate, Inframedial, Staminode, and Spinescent to name a few…and among those terms there are two that look a lot like common English words and that have overlapping definitions: Fruit and flower. Just as the word “fruit” in English does not overlap with the scientific term “fruit,” the English word “flower” does not overlap with the scientific term. You do know, for instance, that those showy red flowery things on Poinsettias are not flowers. Those are just red leaves. Yet, they are flowers. When you visit Grandma at Christmas time and she’s got a big Poinsettia sitting there on the side table, you don’t say “Oh my, Grandmother, what large and pretty leaves you have there!”

So, the second thing that bothers me is this: The “fact” that tomatoes are “fruit” is not true. In English, they are vegetables. They are in the vegetable section, separate from the fruit, in the store. We treat them as vegetables. They taste like vegetables. There is no fruit in a BLT. Oh, sure, in Science Tomatoes are “fruit” … I know this because I wrote my PhD thesis in Science on Fruit so I’m a total expert on the subject. But I also wrote my PhD thesis in Anthropology of human-plant interactions. And I noticed that while the scientific lexicon and the natural language lexicon often overlap, they are not the same. I’m not big on “separate magisteria” because that’s a bunch of crap. But if we see the world as having One True Terminology, then we see the world without its culture. That would be wrong, boring, and close minded.

So, this is the thing: Science can’t communicate by standing on a box and shouting out its rules and insisting that variance between science and culture is indicative of culture being wrong. Tomatoes are not fruit, and the word “theory” means an idea that is weak. In English. Scientists and science boosters can insist as hard as they want that everyone who believes these things are wrong, and if they insist hard enough, in intro science classes an on the Intertubes, then everyone will eventually get it and use proper botanical terms and make correct reference to The Scientific Method when talking about their’ boyfriend’s chance of getting a job at the Target. Not.

Besides. Did you ever ponder the scientific meaning of the term “Vegetable? Turns out, Tomatoes are vegetables if we consider that “The noun vegetable means an edible plant or part of a plant.” Vegetarians eat vegetables, including strawberries.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a vegetable. Wisdom is understanding that a seeming contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but rather, a reflection of the cultural complexity of science and the scientific complexity of culture.

Image by Nina Matthews

Emacs Mail Amusements

Apropos this, cribbed from the GNU Emacs manual by (originally) Richard Stallman:

35.6 Mail Amusements

`M-x spook’ adds a line of randomly chosen keywords to an outgoing mail
message. The keywords are chosen from a list of words that suggest you
are discussing something subversive.

The idea behind this feature is the suspicion that the NSA(1) and
other intelligence agencies snoop on all electronic mail messages that
contain keywords suggesting they might find them interesting. (The
agencies say that they don’t, but that’s what they _would_ say.) The
idea is that if lots of people add suspicious words to their messages,
the agencies will get so busy with spurious input that they will have
to give up reading it all. Whether or not this is true, it at least
amuses some people.

You can use the `fortune’ program to put a “fortune cookie” message
into outgoing mail. To do this, add `fortune-to-signature’ to

(add-hook ‘mail-setup-hook ‘fortune-to-signature)

You will probably need to set the variable `fortune-file’ before using

———- Footnotes ———-

(1) The US National Security Agency.

Please send FSF & GNU inquiries to There are also other ways to contact the FSF.
Please send broken links and other corrections (or suggestions) to

Copyright © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301, USA
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Updated: $Date: 2007/06/10 18:26:22 $ $Author: cyd $

The Cure for Everything

Timothy Caulfield’s book, The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness, attempts to be a corrective in the area of personal heath (as in diet and exercise) management.

From the publisher: “In The Cure for Everything, health-policy expert and fitness enthusiast Timothy Caulfield debunks the mythologies of the one-step health crazes, reveals the truths behind misleading data, and discredits the charlatans in a quest to sort out real, reliable health advice. He takes us along as he navigates the maze of facts, findings, and fears associated with emerging health technologies, drugs, and disease-prevention strategies, and he presents an impressively researched, accessible take on the production and spread of information in the health sciences.”

Skeptical? No problem! Super Skeptic Desiree Schell will be interviewing Caulfield this Sunday on Skeptically Speaking. Also, Scicurious will be talking about Coffee. I won’t want to miss that.

Details for the show:

#166 The Cure for Everything

This week, we’re looking at what the evidence has to say about common claims about diet, exercise, weight loss and other hot health topics. We’re joined by health law professor Timothy Caulfield, to talk about his book The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. And on the podcast, researcher and science blogger Scicurious looks at a new study of coffee consumption, and the effect it may – or may not – have on life expectancy.

We record live with Timothy Caulfield on Sunday, May 27 at 6 pm MT. The podcast will be available to download at 9 pm MT on Friday, June 1.

No new nose neurons?

Elizabeth Norton has an interesting write-up in Science Now. Some years ago, after a long period of suspicion, it was seemingly demonstrated that neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) happened in the human nose. This research was based on the identification of proteins that would be associated with the early formation of baby neurons. Therefore, it was not possible to prove that full grown and functioning neurons were being grown in the nose, but it was assumed to be a reasonable possibly.

However, it really isn’t a reasonable possibility. If there was an Intelligent Designer, then sure, why would baby neurons pop up and then not turn into functioning adult neurons? But if there is no Intelligent Designer, and instead, things evolved, then it is quite possible that the lack of novel fully formed and hooked up neurons in an adult human (which seems to be the general rule of thumb, for whatever reason) is not necessarily achieved via some highly sensible planned out feature. Rather, it is most likely that an evolved feature is a kludge. If it turns out that neurogenesis occurs in the adult human nose but that those nascent neurons never enervate, well, that is what we might expect evolution, which is not intelligent but, rather, pragmatic, to come up with.

The method of testing this idea, applied by Jonas Frisén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is just as interesting as the finding itself. The idea is to date the neurons in the nose. One way to date organic tissue might be to use C-14 dating like archaeologists use, but that method is not precise enough. The neural tissue in a living human might be something like “50 years old plus or minus 80 years” which would not be too useful. But there is a way to use C-14 after all. Since atomic testing started, there has been a LOT more C-14 pushed into the atmosphere, and the added radiocarbon allows for a more precise atomic clock, if the clock is properly calibrated. This method was initially pioneered a few years ago in the forensic case of two sisters who were found dead, long after they had expired, in their home in Vienna. Both sisters had considerable wealth, and the one who died first would have passed on that wealth to the second, living sister. The relatives of the second-to-die sister would therefore receive a considerably larger inheritance than the relatives of the first-to-die sister. The two sisters’ bodies were found semi-mummified, and a couple of years after death, in their apartment which was surrounded by neighbors who never noticed they were no longer around.

The post-A-bomb calibrated C-14 method was used to determine that the sisters had in fact died about a year apart. This method has subsequently been used for other fine-tuned post atomic dating. (There is a write-up of this here.)

OK, now back to the nose.

In the new study, published this week in Neuron, Frisén, Spalding, and colleagues measured levels of 14C in olfactory bulb tissue taken during autopsy from the brains of 15 subjects who were born either before or after the atomic testing period. The researchers found that the neurons in the olfactory bulb were all the same age: the age of the individual they came from. “[That’s] evidence that in humans, in this area, neurogenesis doesn’t occur,” says Frisén.

There is still evidence, i.e. from mice, that neurogenesis of useful neurons does happen in some mammals. The question of novel nose neurons is not entirely settled. But, when the question comes up “Do humans generate new neurons as adults” please make sure that the assumption that they do is not based on this earlier nose research, or on any studies that merely looked for new neuron proteins.

In addition, Macklis points out that the tissue samples may have biased the results. The donors in the study died at the Karolinska Institute, he notes, and some had a history of substance abuse or psychiatric illness, both of which have been shown to decrease neurogenesis. He says that a better test would be to repeat the experiment in healthy people constantly exposed to new scents—chefs, sommeliers, perfumers, or travelers to exotic locales.

Face it: there is still some head scratching going on. We will need to keep an eye on this nose research before sealing our lips on it, and in the mean time, keep your chin up.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Lawrence Whittemore

Dr Who (Matt Smith) to carry Olympic Torch

According to the Dr. Who Fan Site on Google+

Matt Smith will be carrying the Olympic Torch this weekend when it reaches Cardiff in the latest leg of its 70 day trip around the United Kingdom.

Smith will bear the torch early on Saturday morning, at the start of its journey from Cardiff, the capital of Wales and home of Doctor Who, to Swansea a few miles along the coast. The day will see the torch visit the communities of Barry, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda and Bridgend.

“To carry the Torch is an honour, one I thought I’d never get, I’m very excited!”

Daleks will be following close behind, saying of the Olympic Flame, “Exterminate … exterminATE!!!!”

Photo from BBC One Dr Who Galleries

iPads in the Science Classroom: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good

I know of a couple of cases where high schools are switching to the use of iPads or other tablets, replacing existing computer infrastructure with the handy and very cool computing device. When it comes to technology, I’ve never been particularly impressed with school administrations, and K-12 technology departments tend to be a little under-resourced as well, so it does not surprise me that this decision is being made. It is, of course, the wrong thing to do. Continue reading iPads in the Science Classroom: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good